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Sky High

Fear the reefer at Stoned Pizza

The young woman I watched lose consciousness in the sinister weed restaurant in the East Village—cross-eyed and plastered with rheumy chunks of her own vomit—was not the first person I saw hit the ground that day in New York, nor the last, but because it was the city’s worst air quality on record, and the fulvous sun behind smoke was the violence on everyone’s minds, an act of gravity felt somehow more alarming. We were meant to be looking up. There was no natural light in this location of Stoned Pizza (there are two, with a third on the way), which is swathed by blackout curtains through what looks like a foreclosed bodega facade. No natural light unless you count the multicolored candles that were everywhere, and the woman was staring at one where it sat on an eye-level counter, or her face was directed toward it, when her knees buckled like one of those simple wooden toys, a giraffe or gangly horse, which collapses when pressed from the base.

An hour earlier I’d been standing outside, waiting to be let in, noticing things I tried not to see as totemic. Two hours before, leaving some galleries in Chelsea, I had watched a person deep in his demons, shouting at his thoughts and shedding a drift of filthy snow from an oversized parka, push an elderly woman violently to the sidewalk, and then stood with her and had the conversation about whether to call the police, weighing the acts the man might do to another New Yorker against the acts the carceral state might to do to him. The doom in the city was ascendant, or maybe it was bidirectional, from human to weather, concrete to sky. A number of friends I’d seen in the forty-eight hours since the smoke came down had kissed me goodbye on the mouth, which was odd and sweet and not really done, telling of some need to be a body, heretofore an increasingly unpopular proposition, and I was thinking about all of that outside of Stoned Pizza, where on the plastic window someone had spray-painted the words EMOTIONAL CONFLICT and a sluggish, uneven frowning face.

The host, when he popped half his build out the door, looked like an erstwhile teen pop star whose soul had cracked. He had tight, tawny curls and Rickie Nelson blue eyes and a jaw like a Cadillac, and I think some diamonds somewhere, though I felt averse to looking at him long. I’d invited an avuncular, delightful friend, twenty years my senior, who is a steady if not daily recreational user. Larry is a visual and performance artist who sings campy country songs about familial estrangement while wearing rhinestoned diapers and bonnets, and I’ve always found his presence soothing. After he arrived, we chatted briefly with the young woman I later saw vanish into herself. She was there from Delaware, clad in thin white cotton, cheerful with the kind of easy, exaggerated American facial expressions and punctuating laughter glorified by Biore pore strip commercials. Her companion could have been her brother or her boyfriend. “Well, I went to Iowa State,” was how he explained his life, not totally convinced of its import. They were sweaty and mannered and mentioned feeling nervous about having to find the hotel after. It was clearly their first time in New York.

The place had no epicureal ambitions. It had no politics. There were few facts available online, and you didn’t receive an address until the night before.

We entered together; they were seated two tables down. I had a pen in my hand, and maybe I looked like a narc, but I didn’t care, given the prevailing attitude about this drug, which is that it is harmless, hence legal. If there was nothing much going on, there was little wrong with my openly writing about it. I turned out to be correct about the nothingness the place evinced but wrong about the varietal: there are feelings of nothingness that suggest life inside of a helium balloon, and others that are more the anoxic silence of caves, and it was around then I noticed that no one in the restaurant was speaking.

My first question, to the glassy server, who was named Dree and had two buns mounted like pollarded horns set back from her forehead, was about the dosage. Two hundred, she said. We gagged in shock and asked her to repeat the number. The recommended dosage for infrequent users is five, and for the more seasoned, fifteen to twenty. We asked if that could be adjusted. No, she said. Then, in the kind of concession made by those in power to those who have none, she chirped she could leave the THC out of the sodas, which came in jars in childlike colors, and which were very concentrated. I say “very” because no specifics were offered, nor any menu, nor anything like a waiver or a proviso or a warning. She smiled off our concerns, saying we had nothing to worry about: we had signed up for the best sleep of our lives. It was eminently apparent that the night was not going to be some giggly adolescence and that I had made a mistake in my approach, to fly in cavalier to a subculture I had no interest in, other than to poke fun at.

Flowers in Hell

I’m no stranger to drugs but no close friend to THC, which I’ve always found a little vague and enclosing. But I used to do a bit of food writing, and it had seemed like a lark to get slightly fucked up and report on an aesthetic crime, a grayly illegal restaurant of a species popping up around the country. Stoned Pizza had a particularly heinous ur-stoner style; the typeface had weed leaves in it, and the website never emphasized wellness, nor joy. The restaurant never made tenuous arguments about the need for human connection in the climate crisis, as slightly more evolved counterparts in Los Angeles speciously attempt. The place had no epicureal ambitions. It had no politics. There were few facts available online, and you didn’t receive an address until the night before. An email I wrote to its founder, an Instagram celebrity of rough beginnings in Bensonhurst who called himself The Pizza Pusha, went unreturned. I had resolved to buzz in mostly ignorant and sort out the facts later. This was meant to be a cloudy hour or two, I thought, subaltern compared to serious experiences I’d had with what I thought of as real drugs. MDMA, which protracted everyone’s vowels and made the bell sleeves of my pink dress look like Brakhage prints as they juddered; or ketamine that brought me to the lucent afterlife, and then the toilet; or Burmese mushrooms, which I ate on a remote New England island before swimming half the night among lotuses. I am probably what is referred to as a para-addict, which means I can go months or years of my life ascetically sober but anneal with real amounts of a substance for a night if socially it feels comfortable to do so. All this is to say: I did not expect to feel real risk at the weed restaurant, to categorize it as a certain dimension of hell.

There were more flowers in hell than I would have expected: at every table and also arranged in a heaping canopy over a cushioned back booth. The postverbal people at other tables were not looking at each other, or if they were looking at each other, it was the way elderly people mutely regard an ambient television, long after the major events of their lives have transpired. Among the “art” on the brick walls was a series of figurative paintings of glass pipes, which had a Guston pink to them, and some mounted fluorescent tubing which said Either Light Up or Leave Me Alone. There was the smell of nag champa, frequently relit by the staff, and also the joints that various gargoyles of the living statuary were smoking in addition to picking at their meals. It was the only place in New York where people were not talking about the air. It was airless.

I was ostensibly in the city to attend a gala for my publisher, but I was probably at this restaurant because I felt afflicted by a lack of optimism as the summer opened, and I thought I’d take a dip in a banal drug underworld whose project is fundamentally entropic. I had spent ten days in a semiruinous and sybaritic cycle that ran counter to the way I’d been living, in the littoral middle of nowhere on the opposite coast, where I’d escaped to eight months before after a decade in New York, feeling I needed spiritual fermentation. On the trip I’d had martinis at Cipriani and felt grateful for the height of the ceiling; I’d devoured a repentant rice bowl at The Odeon where I did not make eye contact with a wealthy socialite I once saw carry her baby in a purse. I’d loved the life-affirming semolina dumplings in lovage broth at Agi’s Counter in Crown Heights, and the egg cream at Film Forum, and the $12 wooden basket of strawberries from the Grand Army Plaza farmer’s market. It was all a pleasure, but I felt as though I were catching up on life rather than living it in real time. This all did nothing to help the feeling of dread in that restaurant, which was growing so sentient and articulate it could have separated from my sparking chest and mounted a convincing third-party candidacy.

Larry and I decided we would eat very little, and try to avoid sauces and oils, where we knew most of the drug was likely hidden. I tried to pay attention to the food. There were garlic knots with an expert pesto of an earthy, citrine bite, a romaine salad with bell peppers and artichoke hearts and pecorino, spritely and edible. They were playing Mariah Carey club remixes, Terror Squad’s “Lean Back,” and G. Dep’s “Special Delivery.” The pizza had just arrived—definitely focaccia, sweet with some kind of honey glaze, a little airier in its rise than I might have predicted, with broccoli and mushrooms and basil—when I saw the girl behind Larry’s right shoulder.

It took me a moment to realize it was the same person I’d spoken to because she looked so transfigured, and because the drug, despite my attempts to moderate, had hit. She had been staggering toward the candle, or maybe toward the exit far behind us—it’s hard to say because by then she had stopped moving. Five seconds after she was down, the cracked pop star had lifted her like a cartoon firefighter does a damsel felled by smoke inhalation and was carrying her outside. The most alarming fact was not that she was completely insensate but that he and everyone around us seemed entirely unconcerned. The unmoving people did not look toward her, their only gestures still the slight flicks of the joints in their hands. There was a pool of liquid on the ground near her table, which was almost immediately descended upon by staff with rags, and I wondered if it was piss or vomit, or if she would remember it later, or if she would feel anything when she did.

I was bilious with envy for their agility and purpose.

After a few minutes of Larry and I describing the event to each other, I stood up to ask—someone, anything. The pretty ghoul who had lifted her out was going about his job. “People faint in here all the time,” he said. “We just carry them outside.” Then he looked at the pen in my hand, which I had not even realized I was still holding. It was the first time I saw his eyes take on any color. “Why do you have a pen?” he asked, with a very clear note of menace. I may have apologized, and then we made tracks to leave. Outside, the two ruined children were on a bench, she still unrecognizable and slumped on him. I offered to help get her into a taxi, but he seemed incapable of deciding on any immediate future, and instead Larry and I walked toward Tompkins Square Park. My proprioception was off, and I kept bumping into him; he couldn’t figure out where in the park we were, despite having lived nearby for thirty-something years; there were ping-pong players bouncing their happy lives off the concrete table, and I was bilious with envy for their agility and purpose.

“So much would have to change for us to be playing ping-pong right now,” I said, feeling like I was about to weep. We tried to have a drink at Big Bar, but I couldn’t tolerate the sonic pressure, I needed to be alone, I needed to see a movie. My eyesight seemed about as precise as a disposable camera viewfinder with grease on it, and I couldn’t figure out how to read the numbers on my phone, so I floated down Second Ave toward Anthology Film Archives, where the employee locking up seemed suspect of my appearance and emphasized they were closed. I stood on the corner of Bowery and watched a man on an electric bicycle crash into a man on a regular bicycle, and as they fell to pavement and started to shout, I hailed a cab. The word for how I felt was extinct.

Smoke Damage

Out in the gray sunshine the next day, walking to meet a friend for lunch, I kept remembering what the host had said. People faint in here all the time. It was, most of all, a very American episode, a story about an individual who had done as she pleased, and the other people who were not responsible. The same situation, playing out in certain European countries, would have involved a safe room, perhaps some medical attention.

I had lunch at Olea with a musician friend who was moving to France, feeling the States were no place for an artist to get older, his face itself a round, reasonable question. I had polenta and eggs and two glasses of Falanghina and an espresso, and later I took the train into the city where I met a filmmaker I hardly knew, a friend-of-a, for a martini and oysters at Fraunces Tavern. One drink led to another, and somehow, after a screening and a walk, I ended up, again, in the East Village.

I was in a carmine-lit bar I’d been in many times, the sort of place with a demographic that shapeshifts night by night, but at a certain point the acquaintance invited me into a locked back area I hadn’t known existed. He beamed like a smug philanthropist, he raised a sleazy and hieratic hand, and then he produced a small twist of cocaine and a stunted red-and-white striped straw. I did exactly one line, mostly because I was charmed that in New York there are always rooms which hide others, and you enter them at your own risk, and sometimes it’s a blessing to be excused from the slipstream, and sometimes it’s a curse, and the choice is perspectival, or the chance is to be perforated by other people. Back in the crowd, he removed a camcorder from his tote bag, pointing it toward talking faces, and the night went long, molting dimensions a few times after that. When I finally kissed a pillow, the girl’s crumpling face played before or around me with the tremulous half-life of a note played on a fiddle, and I saved a prayer that she would not go missing from her own life, and then, as the smoke over the city had begun to do, the details started to thin out, and to lift.